OBITUARY FOR PROFESSOR J.D.M. DERRETT (By Prof. Werner Menski, SOAS, University of London)

(By Prof. Werner Menski, SOAS, University of London)

Professor John Duncan Martin Derrett, DCL, PhD, LLD (30.8.1922-21.10.2012), a barrister and for a long time the major global expert in the Western world on Hindu law and the laws of India, passed away at the age of 90 in the idyllic village of Blockley in the Cotswolds. After a distinguished career as an academic in several related fields, prominently Hindu and Indian law and Christian theology, he enjoyed 30 years of research-active retirement, surrounded by books and papers collected over decades. His large family arranged a church ceremony in his memory on 1 November 2012. Jeremy Bourne describes him on that occasion as a man of towering intellect and notes that the local residents knew that they had a scholar of international reputation living amongst them:
As a textual analyst and a student both of early Christian and Hebrew literature, and also of the Buddhist and ancient Hindu religious texts, he was working in a field known only to theologians and scholars of comparative religion. He published some forty-four books. He had a mastery not only of classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and hence a knowledge of Aramaic. He also had a fluent understanding of Sanskrit, and thus of early Hindi, Pali and no doubt of Tamil.

Duncan Derrett, as he was known locally, was an active President of the Antiquarian Society and even published several collections of local historical manuscripts, which can be found on the internet. After his retirement from SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he was Professor of Oriental Laws from 1965-1982, he became engaged in intensive research on complex, often controversial questions of theology and comparative religion. His critical scholarly analysis upset quite a few scholars through his significant findings that Christian religious traditions were to some extent influenced by Buddhist and early Hindu concepts.
What is described by those around him as ‘the other side of Duncan’s scholarship’ will particularly interest older readers of the KLT, for Professor Derrett had a long-standing connection with this leading Indian law journal and its much-respected Founder Editor, M.C. Mathew, until I took over from him. In 1982, we were both on the Editorial Committee. That year he published the last of his articles at pp. 31-33 of the KLT Journal Section on ‘Nullity of marriage and change of religion’. This is item 397 in a list of books and articles prepared as part of Indology and Law. Studies in Honour of Professor J. Duncan M. Derrett, edited by Gűnther-Dietz Sontheimer and Parameswara Kota Aithal (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag 1982), which speaks volumes about this great scholar’s life work. He continued to publish some further articles also on Hindu law, even in the early years of the new Millennium. However, after his retirement from SOAS, his attention clearly shifted to New Testament Studies and related topics.
The Preface in Derrett’s Festschrift highlights that he ‘never follows any of those “schools of thought” or short-lived academic fashions which sometimes reflect more on the state of these disciplines in the country of their origin than on the true India’ (italics in the original, p. v). He laid to rest Sir Henry Maine’s rather superficial remarks about the development of traditional Indian legal culture. Above all, he deeply engaged with Indian judicial decisions and produced several major books on Indian family law, prominently An Introduction to Modern Hindu Law (Oxford: OUP 1963), A Critique of Modern Hindu Law (Bombay: Tripathi 1970), and The Death of a Marriage Law (New Delhi: Vikas 1978). These may be outdated today, but inform researchers reliably about earlier stages of development and the difficulties in finding the ‘right law’ in one of the world’s most important jurisdictions. Indeed, the editors of the Festschrift noted (p. vi):
For Derrett the occupation with India is never only an abstract, theoretical armchair affair. His teaching has inspired many Indian and European law students. His critiques of court decisions are a useful corrective in the development of modern Hindu law, fully and gratefully acknowledged by many Indian students of law, advocates, and judges. They do not fail to see that his relentless criticism is matched by a deep sympathy for India and her well-being in the modern world.
His collected works in four volumes, Essays in Classical and Modern Hindu Law (Leiden: Brill 1976-78), are further testimony of towering achievements. Religion, Law and the State in India (London: Faber & Faber 1968) has probably most lasting relevance as a historical study and was reprinted in India in 1998. His early textbook on comparative law, An Introduction to Legal Systems (London: Sweet & Maxwell 1968) was also reprinted (New Delhi: Universal 1999). It allows insights into how much progress has been made in that field since the 1960s, when the comparative law programme at SOAS was beginning to be conceived.
Indian judges, in particular, appreciated his enthusiasm for understanding legal decision making processes in the intensely plural and messy context of a massive hybrid legal system. When I took over from him at SOAS in the early 1980s, we did not get much of a chance to work together, as he stage-managed a dramatic exit into early retirement, leaving me to my own wits. Glad to have survived this, I obtained belated approval of my predecessor in an almost embarrassing review of Hindu Law Beyond Tradition and Modernity (New Delhi: OUP 2003) in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 15.1 (April 2005), pp. 110-112. This grand old man, a true scholar, was evidently misunderstood by many around him and did not endear himself to unfair critics by his sharp wit and intolerance of nonsense.
Having ended the long wait at the doors of the crematorium, as he once wrote to me, Professor Derrett will be remembered forever, also and maybe specifically in Kerala, as the major British scholar of Hindu law in the world. His legacy lives on in his innumerable publications, in my work, and in the many young people who are not too blinded by modernity to discover today that in bygone times there was a great scholar of Indian laws in London, a true rishi on the banks of the Thames, as it was once put. In his own time, he may have predicted some elements of the future wrongly because he was perhaps, as a lawyer, a little too influenced by colonial predilections and by the dominant legal positivist orientation of his time. This made him believe in the benefits of a Uniform Civil Code for India once the time was right. Today we know that this time will never come, but Derrett’s parting advice in the 1978 book (p. 206) is truly far-sighted. He predicted that the new self-image of modern Indian women would make a huge contribution to shaping the legal system of the future into a new ‘people’s justice’. Finally, with explicit reference to former Supreme Court Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is actually much older than Professor Derrett and survives even longer, the parting guidance is that justice, also in India, is prominently and safely placed in the hands of judges. What wise words from a great legal scholar who, in his own way, believed in the rule of law.
In January 2009, a special panel of the first LASSNET Conference in New Delhi celebrated the contributions of this great scholar to the study of South Asian Comparative Laws and Social Change. An internet search under ‘Duncan Derrett’ yields enormous evidence of the continuing impact of this true polymath and his wide-ranging scholarship. His memory and his work live on. May his fine soul rest in peace.